A guy walks into a bar and asks for a beer. The bartender says, “Anything special?” The guy replies, “What have you got?” The bartender smiles and says, “Well, we have some old ales.” “Sure,” says the guy, “give me one of those.” “Fine,” responds the bartender. “Do you want one from 4,000 years ago, 3,800 years ago, 2,700 years ago, 1,500 years ago, or something more current, say, one from 1554 or 1825?”
Now you’re waiting for the punch line. Sorry, there isn’t one.
Beers from these time periods have actually been brewed in the last two decades. A few are even commercially produced and are for sale in bottled or cask form. The thing is, brewers and scientists with curious minds and palates have resurrected old–even ancient–beers. Why? For the sheer joy of the intellectual pursuit, in most cases. How? By analyzing ancient bits of matter left in jars, pots and bottles, by translating forgotten texts, by listening to old tales, and by hunting for dusty old books and documents.
Here are the stories of several of these recreations.
Fraoch Heather Ale–2000 BC
“Beware of old men telling tales of ancient brew. They may change your life forever.” That should be the motto above the door of Heather Ale Ltd., a Scottish microbrewery run by brothers Bruce and Scot Williams. Forty years ago, their father opened a homebrew shop in Glasgow, which Bruce eventually took over. One day in 1986, an old fellow walked into the store and told him about an old style of ale from “up north” brewed with heather. Intrigued, Bruce began to investigate the old man’s story.
In the Glasgow public library, Bruce discovered much about his country’s brewing past. The earliest record of heather ale dates to approximately 2000 BC. On the Isle of Rhum, archaeologists discovered a Neolithic shard containing traces of a fermented beverage made with heather flowers. Scottish stories and legends throughout the following centuries continued to refer to a brew made with heather. But after Scotland’s unification with England in the 1700s, heather ale was outlawed by an act of Parliament that prevented brewers from using any ingredients other than hops and malt. A law passed in London, however, didn’t hold sway over every nook and cranny of Scotland, and Williams learned that in the Highlands and Western Isles of the country the brewing of heather ale continued through the 1800s.
The Williams’ task at this point was to try to recreate heather ale from the sketch of a recipe given to Bruce by the old man who first put him onto his quest. Scot Williams explained that, during that first season, his brother journeyed out into the fields and picked fresh heather, bog myrtle and several other herbs that he had read about in old texts. He experimented with recipe after recipe, perfecting his heather ale. “The experiments,” said Scot, “consisted of running hot, unfermented ale through a bed of heather to try to pick up as many floral notes as possible until we were happy with it.”
Finally satisfied with their recipe, the Williams brothers brewed their first commercial batch of heather ale at a friend’s small commercial brewery in Argyll. At the West Highland Brewery, they brewed 20,000 pints of heather ale that were eventually sold to local pubs. “We just wanted to see the reaction to it,” explained Scot. “We were just playing about, really.” The reaction to heather ale was positive, but by the time they decided to step up production the heather was no longer in flower. They had missed the August to October season.
After several years, the Williamses moved heather ale production to a larger facility, the Thistle Brewery, in Alloa. They also began picking large quantities of heather, immediately putting it into refrigerated trucks and freezing it as soon as possible. “We now have pallet loads of heather in a big commercial freezer,” said Scot.
Today, the brothers own a brewery in which they brew a cask version of heather ale and they are part owners of a second brewery that has a bottling line. The brewing process hasn’t changed too much from the early experiments. Malted barley, sweet gale and flowering heather are mashed together, boiled, cooled slightly and then poured onto a bed of fresh heather flowers for a one-hour infusion.
The brothers have continued their old Scottish ale experiments. They also produce Ebulum, a strong black ale brewed with roasted barley, oats, wheat herbs, hops, bog myrtle and elderberry; Grozet, brewed with lager malt, wheat, bog myrtle, hops and meadowsweet, then secondary fermented with ripe Scottish gooseberries; Alba, a strong brown ale brewed with fresh spruce shoots and Scots pine; and Kelpie, an ale brewed with organic malts and hops and a seaweed known as bladderwrack.
Ninkasi Beer–1800 BC
Which came first? Beer or bread? A fascination with this question led to the recreation of a 2,700-year-old Sumerian beer, a project undertaken by Fritz Maytag, owner of San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing, and Dr. Solomon Katz, a bioanthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.
Maytag had read a story in Expeditions, U Penn’s museum publication, of the beer versus bread debate first posed in the 1950s. Robert Braidwood of the University of Chicago had written that there was a cause-effect relationship between bread making and the domestication of cereal grains. Jonathan D. Sauer, a botanist from the University of Wisconsin, countered by suggesting that the first uses of domesticated cereals may have been for beer rather than for bread. Braidwood decided to hold a symposium on the subject for the journal American Anthropologist titled, “Did man once live by beer alone?”
Intrigued by the debate, Maytag invited Katz, who had studied and written about ancient beer making, to visit his brewery and discuss the issue. What Katz didn’t know at the time was that Maytag also had in mind the idea of recreating an ancient beer. He was thinking ahead for an idea with which to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Anchor’s new brew house and the 1988 meeting of the American Association of Micro Brewers, being held in San Francisco.
As it turns out, in 1987 Katz was lecturing in California at a wine and health symposium run by the Mondavi wine company. “My son was with me,” said Katz, “and I remembered the several invitations from Anchor. I thought this would be fun and also something my son would enjoy.”
At the brewery, Katz said he and his son were given the red carpet treatment. “Fritz and I hit it off immediately, and we began talking about the history and origins of beer and bread. I had earlier proposed that beer had almost certainly preceded bread, but it was like the chicken and egg debate–in order to make ancient beer, you almost certainly had to make some bread with it.”
Maytag and Katz began corresponding on the topic, faxes flying between San Francisco and Philadelphia, with Maytag wanting to support Katz’s research on beer and the origins of brewing. “At the time, I had put forward the idea that Mesopotamian beer was older than Egyptian beer, something I’m not so sure of today,” remembered Katz. “I knew that beer making played an important role in Sumerian society and that Mesopotamia was close to the region of the earliest cereal domestication.”
A key element in deciding on this region and time was an ancient text from Sumeria dated about 1800 BC and translated in 1964 by Miguel Civil of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. This text, from stone tablets found at Nippur, Suppar and Larsa, was known as the “Hymn to Ninkasi.” The text sings the praises of Ninkasi, a minor goddess in the Sumerian pantheon, whose name translates as “you who fill my mouth so full.”
“This hymn,” said Katz, “was basically a recipe for brewing beer. Fritz and I both gleaned as much information as we could on to how to make this beer, based on the hymn.”
The more Maytag and Katz studied the recipe, however, the more they didn’t think it would successfully brew beer. “Certain aspects of the recipe seemed wrong,” said Katz, “based on what we know of modern brewing techniques. So we located Miguel Civil and had him retranslate a portion of the text.”
As it turns out, Civil had translated the Ninkasi text at the beginning of his career, and now, as the world authority on Sumerian cuneiform writing, he had greatly perfected his translation techniques. Sure enough, his retranslation turned up changes that resolved the brewing process problems with which Maytag and Katz had been concerned. “Finally,” said Katz, “we could successfully recreate the Sumerian beer.”
Back in San Francisco, the Anchor brewers used a honey and barley flour mixture to make a bread called “bappir” in the Ninkasi text. They guessed that the Sumerians may have added dates to the bappir in order to sweeten and flavor it, but they decided to add the dates only to the final mixture of the bread when it was being put into the mashing vat. The combination of unmalted, malted and roasted barley for the flour didn’t dry out, however, so the bread was baked a second time, much like present-day Italian biscotti.
The next step was to add one-third bappir and two-thirds barley malt in the mashing vessel. After the boil, they allowed the unfermented beer to cool naturally and then fermented it with a standard brewing yeast.
The Ninkasi text didn’t specify a bittering or preservative for the beer, such as hops offers to modern brewers, so the beer was flash-pasteurized to assure preservation. The beer finished its fermentation with just over 4 percent alcohol by volume.
“I was worried about whether we could actually serve this to people,” remembered Katz. “I was really concerned. I couldn’t be there the night it was first served, but everyone enjoyed it and nobody got sick, so that’s all good.”
The Sumerian Ninkasi beer debuted, as Maytag had planned, at the brewers’ association meeting. It was consumed in proper Sumerian fashion, sipped from large jugs using long drinking straws fashioned to resemble the gold and lapis lazuli straws found in the mid-third-millennium tomb of Lady Pu-abi at Ur. The beer had a dry flavor, not at all bitter, and tasted similar to a hard apple cider with a pronounced fragrance of dates.
King Tutankhamun’s Ale–1500 BC
Yes, King Tut drank beer–as did almost everyone in ancient Egyptian society, from the pharaohs down to the slaves who built the pyramids.
In 1990, the London-based Egyptian Exploration Society approached British brewing giant, Scottish & Newcastle, for financial help in their study of ancient Egyptian brewing. With the brewery’s help, and that of an Egyptologist and other scientists, research centered on grains and seeds left behind by ancient brewers. The researchers also studied the sediment from old jars found in a brewery housed inside the Sun Temple of Nefertiti, queen of a pharaoh called Akhenaten, whom Egyptologists believe was probably Tutankhamun’s father.
The ruins of the Sun Temple and brewery were found under the desert, 200 miles south of Cairo at Tel el Amarna, once the capital of Egypt. It had gone undiscovered for centuries because it lies beneath a Roman camp dismissed as uninteresting by earlier expeditions. The brewery buildings, said Egyptologist Barry Kemp of Cambridge University and director of the dig, were extensive. “Room after room of ovens formed a combined bakery-brewery of factory proportions.”
Archaeobiologist Delwyn Samuel, also of Cambridge University, worked on the project as well. Upon analyzing the sediment from jars and other vessels, Samuel found evidence of malted barley that had been boiled, similar to modern brewing practice, and a type of wheat called “emmer.” Kemp and Samuel discerned, from Samuel’s lab analysis and by looking at tomb paintings of the period, that, in addition to malting their wheat, the ancient Egyptians brewed quickly, in just three days, probably because of the hot climate, and in 2-gallon vessels. Evidence of coriander and naback fruit was also discovered, ingredients probably used to sweeten and preserve the beer.
“Even the pure water of the desert wells was analyzed,” said Jim Merrington, Scottish and Newcastle’s project director.
To recreate the Tutankhamun beer, Scottish & Newcastle and Samuel needed emmer wheat. Emmer exists in modern times, especially in Turkey, and an attempt was made to cultivate the plant on the banks of the Nile. When this effort failed, Scottish & Newcastle gave a small quantity of emmer seeds to an agricultural college near Edinburgh, where it was successfully grown and harvested. The resulting 60 kilos of grain became the basis for the experimental brew. Eventually, Scottish & Newcastle produced just 1,000 bottles of King Tutankhamun’s Ale.
King Midas Golden Elixir–718 BC
The legendary King Midas turns out not to be a legend, after all. He may not have had a golden touch, but this once powerful ruler of the Phrygians, in the land we now know as Turkey, was a wealthy king.
Evidence of this comes from a University of Pennsylvania archeology find. In 1957, archeologist Rodney Young uncovered the 230-foot-high burial mound of King Midas at Gordion in central Turkey. The date of Midas’s death was set at 718 BC.
A wealth of pots and furniture was recovered from the dig, as well as a tremendous amount of dried residue from food containers and drinking vessels. But in 1957, the science for chemically analyzing this residue was relatively crude. The food and drink remains were bagged and sent to Philadelphia.
Enter Dr. Patrick McGovern, a molecular archeologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology. McGovern is a world expert at discovering the drinks and foods of ancient civilizations, by analyzing, sometimes molecule by molecule, the residue in pots and wooden containers. Little did McGovern know that just several floors above his basement office and lab were paper bags full of the food and drink remains from the Midas dig. They had been sitting there for 40 years in the office of Ellen Kohler, an archivist at the museum and a participant in the original 1957 dig.
“I got involved in this project in 1997 with a phone call from the person who did the study of the furniture from the tomb,” explained McGovern. Elizabeth Simpson, a professor at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts in New York City, is considered the world’s leading authority on the furniture found at Midas’s tomb. A former doctoral classmate of McGovern’s at UPenn, Simpson believed that everything found at the tomb was part of the king’s funeral services. The food and drink remains, she believed, would have been from the funeral feast. “She asked me if I was interested in analyzing the material and I jumped right on it,” said McGovern. “All I had to do was walk up the stairs, check the samples out and start doing the analysis.”
McGovern believed that the drink at the feast most certainly would have been alcoholic. “I did a whole series of analyses and gradually figured out the various constituents of the drink and entrée,” he said. What he discovered was that the drink, probably about 10 percent alcohol by volume, was a mixture of wine, beer and honey mead.
“One of the things we didn’t actually identify was the spice or the bittering agent,” said McGovern. “We assume there must have been something like that because we found other spices in the food. And if you have a very sweet mixture of wine, beer and mead, you’d think there must be some sort of spice.” Saffron became McGovern’s best guess at a spice. “It’s native to Turkey,” said McGovern. “You have a lot of wild crocuses growing there and it has that golden look to it, as well as a very special flavor and aroma.”
McGovern had successfully analyzed King Midas’s funeral drink, but he wasn’t a brewer. He didn’t try to recreate the brew. That task fell to others.
“Last March there was a dinner at the university,” said McGovern, “for the beer writer, Michael Jackson. After the dinner, I mentioned what we had been doing with the Midas drink and invited anyone who was interested in learning more about it to come to my lab the next morning to see what we’d discovered. I thought that maybe someone would have an idea what the process would be to recreate this beverage.”
Present that morning were Tess and Mark Szamatulski, Connecticut homebrewers, homebrew shop owners and authors of Clone Brews and Beer Captured. The Szamatulskis experimented with a Midas brew, combining barley malt, wild thyme honey from Greece, and partially fermented muscat grape juice. They fermented this mixture in four vessels with wine yeast, using a different bittering spice in three of the fermenters–Turkish figs, anise and saffron–leaving the last batch unbittered. The final drink was 8 percent alcohol by volume. The Szamaltskis shared their results and recipe with McGovern, and they have since won awards with their creation at homebrew competitions.
At the Jackson dinner, McGovern also spoke to Sam Caligione, owner/brewer of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery in Delaware, about brewing a microbrewery-sized batch of King Midas brew. Caligione made a 93-gallon experimental batch using malted barley, thyme honey from Italy, and white muscat grapes, seasoning the brew with Indian saffron and fermenting it with mead yeast. The resulting 7.5 percent alcohol by volume brew was served at a $150-per-person benefit for UPenn’s molecular archaeology program.
Asked if he was planning a commercial release of King Midas Golden Elixir, McGovern said the cost factor would first have to be worked out. “Sam said it was one of the most expensive beers he’d ever made,” remarked McGovern.
1554 Brussels Style Black Ale–1554
“There is no such thing as black beer in Belgium. No. Not now. Never.” So spoke Peter Boukaert, the brewer at New Belgium Brewing, a Fort Collins, CO-based microbrewery that, as the name implies, specializes in Belgian-style ales.
In 1997, Phil Benstein (the brewery’s “quality development whiz”) came across a reference to a Belgian zwartbier (black beer) in an 1888 British book titled, The Popular Beverages of Various Countries. Benstein mentioned the beer to Boukaert, a Belgian-born and trained brewer, who immediately discounted the probability of such a thing.
“I had never heard of a black Belgian beer,” said Boukaert, who asked to be shown the book. But before the two could make it to the library at Colorado State University, a flood had ruined the book in question. So much for that.
A year later, however, Boukaert and Benstein were allowed access to a large brewing library where they found a book (Boukaert can’t remember the exact date or title) that described the beverages of the 1800s. In the Belgian section of the book, they found a reference to Belgian black beers. Boukaert was astounded. “I thought this was kind of wacky,” he remembered.
Not long after this discovery, the CSU library repaired the damaged book Benstein had originally come across. In this book and in several others that they discovered, Boukaert and Benstein continued to find brief mentions of black beer from Belgium. Their curiosity was aroused.
When the two traveled to Belgium for a brewing conference, Boukaert asked every Belgian brewer he met about black beer. “To my satisfaction,” he said, “they acted the same as I had, saying this couldn’t be so.” Not giving up, the two kept inquiring about black Belgian beer. Eventually, they were given the names of several individuals to contact, one of whom invited the two to his private library of old books.
“In his books from the 1700s,” said Boukaert, “we found a mention of black beer and specifically a reference to a black beer from 1554 in a book titled, The History of the City of Brussels.” As luck–bad luck–would have it, that book was not in the collector’s possession. But Boukaert’s nephew is a historian, and he eventually located the book. Sure enough, Boukaert found a few beer recipes, including one for a black beer.
The units of measurement in the recipes were odd and difficult to figure out, but by cross-referencing to other texts, Boukaert soon came up with what he determined were the correct amounts of water, malts and hops. He and others at New Belgium decided that since the earliest reference they had found to a black Belgian beer was from 1554, this was a perfect name for the beer, now a year-round product in bottles and on draft.
Although 1554 is black, Boukaert claims that it’s nothing like a porter or stout. He uses a lager yeast at warm fermentation temperatures, 60 percent specialty malts in the grain mixture, just enough hops to bitter the beer but not flavor it, and secret spices. “Those I don’t tell,” emphasized Boukaert.
This young re-creation, relatively speaking compared to the others, is an academic exercise turned commercial. One of the great brewing schools in the world is the Brewlab Unit at the University of Sunderland in the United Kingdom. A microbiologist, Dr. Keith Thomas, heads Brewlab.
Thomas explained that in the late 1980s the once famous London beer called porter hadn’t been brewed commercially in the UK for many years. “In 1987,” he said, “we decided to brew a porter at Brewlab, having obtained a recipe from John Harrison and the Durden Park Beer Circle, a group of homebrewers in the London area who research and recreate old beer styles.” Thomas was pleased with his result, brewed at London’s Pitfield brewery, but wanted to make a more authentic porter. Then, serendipity showed her hand.
“The next year, one of our technicians, Matthew Richardson, an amateur diver, was diving in the Channel during a weekend off,” said Thomas. “Afterwards, in the local pub, he noticed an old bottle behind the bar and asked where it was from.” As it turns out, the bottle was from an 1825 wreck in the Channel. The pub owner had heard stories that there were plenty more bottles in the wreck, known locally as the Bottle Wreck, but had no idea what they were or from where they originally came.
Back at Brewlab on Monday, Richardson told Thomas about the bottle. “I thought it would be interesting to analyze this beer,” said Thomas, “but I knew that the bottle in the pub would have deteriorated. So we asked Matthew to go get some more from the sea, which he dutifully did for us.”
Thomas opened the first bottle of the newly recovered 1825 beer at a brewing symposium, with the plan of later analyzing the contents, and saw that there was a sediment on the bottom, most likely containing yeast cells. He opened the second bottle under laboratory conditions and, upon analysis, found living yeast, five bacteria and two moulds. The bottles and their yeast, from a delivery of beer bound for London from Littlehampton, had survived 163 years under the sea. Their solid wood corks and wax seals were impressive stoppers.
“There was a lot of yeast,” remembered Thomas, “that remained alive and incredibly stable because of the cold and dark conditions. The metabolism would have been very slow. Surely many yeast cells would have died, but also a few would have survived on the remains of the dead ones.”
Thomas and his Brewlab crew purified and cultured the yeast. “We teased out the various other organisms that were there, the bacteria and moulds, and ended up with a yeast we thought we could brew with,” said Thomas. “My suspicion is that there were a number of yeasts in the original beer and only the most resilient survived. The one we’ve cultured is not as stable as we’d like, so we use it for the secondary fermentation in the beer we call Flag Porter.”
Thomas believes that the original beer was probably a light-colored porter rather than a dark roasted one such as those brewed commercially today. “I would guess that it was made with the brown and amber malts popular at the time,” explained Thomas. “We brewed it according to an 1850 brown porter recipe that Whitbread was generous to give us from their archives.”
Thomas first brewed Flag Porter at the Pitfield Brewery in London, but when Pitfield moved to Birmingham, he contract brewed the beer at several London microbreweries until demand grew too big for the brewing capacity. The next brewery to take on Flag Porter was the Elgood Brewery in Wisbech, and today, the Forth Brewery in Scotland brews the ale.
“We have a student this year who is looking at brewing a stronger version of Flag Porter (currently 5 percent alcohol) with the same yeast,” Thomas said.
Bound by a Common Quest
Scots, Sumerians, Egyptians, Phrygians, Belgians, English. What’s the connection? The answer, of course, is beer. Carefully fermented grains, and in some cases honey and grapes, that for over 4,000 years men and women in different parts of the world have turned into tasty libations. Perhaps these original brewers and brewsters were inspired by a god, as with Ninkasi, or to honor a great king, like Midas. Maybe they were experimenting in their own times. After all, who ever heard of a black Belgian beer? Or maybe, just maybe, they were simply doing their jobs. Making beer.
Today’s brewers of the ancient and old beers– the historians, archaeologists, linguists, anthropologists, scientists, teachers, and the plain old curious– are a different breed from their predecessors. They have a history of beer to look back and reflect upon. They have the resources and technology to investigate and experiment. They spend long hours at excavation sites, in libraries, in labs and in brewhouses. And for what purpose? Again, to make beer. Beer from the past.
Gregg Glaser is the news editor of All About Beer Magazine.